Hollywood’s biggest stars are gathering to salute American heroes on Veterans Day.
The American Veterans Center presents “American Valor: A Salute to Our Heroes,” airing Friday, Nov. 11 on the American Forces Network, as well as broadcasting on NBC, FOX, ABC and CBS affiliates throughout the month (check your local listings).
“The real celebrities are the heroes, the men and women being awarded tonight, but Hollywood has joined us,” actor James Madio (“Band of Brothers”) told WTOP.
The broadcast features actors famous for military roles, including Bradley Cooper (“American Sniper”), Tom Cruise (“Top Gun”) and Chris Pratt (“Zero Dark Thirty”).
You’ll also see appearances from Chris Pine (“Star Trek”), Edward Norton (“Fight Club”), Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”) and Rob Riggle (“The Hangover”), who hosted the event last Saturday, Nov. 5 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest D.C.
Madio will honor Vince Speranza of the 101st Airborne Division. During World War II’s Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne, Belgium, Speranza found a working beer tap in a bombed-out tavern and filled up his helmet with beer to bring a drink to his wounded friend. The unique beer-run became the stuff of U.S. Army lore and is still celebrated by tourists in Bastogne today.
“Vince went back years after the war, he shows up in Bastogne and there’s this story going around of this young solider in World War II running back and forth from this tavern giving the 101st Airborne beer,” Madio said. “He saw all these tourists drinking out of helmets and said, ‘That was me! I was the guy who did all this!’ So, they named a beer after him called ‘Nuts.'”
Madio portrayed Technician Fourth Grade Frank Perconte in HBO’s masterful miniseries “Band of Brothers” (2001) based on the 1992 book by Stephen Ambrose and executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks after “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).
“Between ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Band of Brothers,’ that’s cinematic history in storytelling on World War II, trying to capture a little fraction of what these guys went through,” Madio said. “We could show America and the world what this generation went through and pass that legacy, those stories on to the next generation so we never forget.”
Every episode of “Band of Brothers” began with present-day interviews with actual veterans, sharing their harrowing memories of the events tackled in that episode.
“It’s an incredible, powerful opening to all the episodes, hearing from the veterans who were actually there who lived it,” Madio said. “After putting this away for 60 or 70 years and never speaking of it, then coming out, they were afraid of opening up these old wounds.”
During the dramatizations, Madio worked with a stellar cast, including Scott Grimes, Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg, Dexter Fletcher and David Schwimmer.
“The producers put us into an actor’s boot camp,” Madio said. “It was rigorous, breaking down weapons, doing maneuvers, marching, night duty, tank maneuvers, anything you can imagine in a 16 or 17-hour day. They broke you down. You realized you needed the person to the left and right of you. … We all called each other by our characters’ names.”
His favorite of the battlefield episodes is the wintry Episode 6 (“Bastogne”), but his favorite overall episode is Episode 9 (“Why We Fight”), which plays like “Schindler’s List” (1993) as the members of Easy Company liberate one of the Dachau satellite camps in Bavaria.
“If I had to choose, the “Bastogne” episode really stands out with the medic, Doc Roe played by Shane Taylor, but the one I’d say is Episode 9 with the concentration camps,” Madio said. “A lot of these young men knew they were fighting for something, but when they stumbled upon the concentration camps they remembered the title: ‘Why We Fight.'”
Madio said Spielberg actually remembered him as one of the Lost Boys in “Hook” (1991).
“When I auditioned for ‘Band of Brothers,’ I happened to be the first one there,” Madio said. “I’m sitting outside the front door nervous as anything. Spielberg was walking up. … He goes to thank me for opening the door and he actually recognized me. He said, ‘Hey! My Lost Boy! Good to see you.’ … He said, ‘Alright, see you up there. Do great things.'”
The “Hook” role got him cast as Dustin Hoffman’s son in “Hero” (1992) and across Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Basketball Diaries” (1995). Most recently, he starred in the Paramount+ miniseries “The Offer” (2022) about the making of “The Godfather” (1972).
“Dexter Fletcher, the executive producer and director of it, was Johnny Martin in ‘Band of Brothers,'” Madio said. “He called me and said, ‘Jim, you’re the most Italian guy that I know. I’m doing a television show based on ‘The Godfather’ and I want you to be in it.’ I was just blown away because I’m a huge ‘Godfather’ fan — I mean, who is not?”